The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 Review
Editor’s note: Here’s an in-depth review of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2, a micro four-thirds camera that promises high-quality imagery and versatility. All in a compact body that, in the words of reviewer Luis Buenaventura, “isn’t the equivalent of having a laptop strapped to your neck”.
The micro four-thirds format is a strange technology. A camera body that boasts DSLR-like image quality at half the size and weight sounds too good to be true, and many photographers thumb their noses at the very idea that their precious full-frame sensors could ever be challenged by such nonsense. But size and weight are very high priorities for me (probably more so than image fidelity), and the kind of photography I like. Small cameras don’t call attention to themselves out on the street, and it’s very difficult not to influence a scene when you’re pointing a DSLR with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at it. (Believe me, I’ve tried.)
I’ve had the Panasonic GH2, a second-generation mFT camera, for a little over a month now, just enough time to give me a general sense of whether or not this camera and I have any kind of future together. On the surface, there’s a lot of things to like. It’s small, lightweight, autofocuses plenty fast with its spry 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, and has a really top-notch articulated liveview touch screen. It also costs more than any other camera I’ve ever bought, with the body clocking in at an even US$1000.
I’m going to get the obvious question out of the way first. Whether or not the mFT format is a reasonable alternative to DSLRs depends on two things: Your usage, and your lens. I’m an enthusiast, not a professional, and as such, I don’t pixel-peep when I look at my images. I care about what the photo says, not whether I can blow it up to wall-poster sizes. I would wager that a good 90% of the people who own DSLRs are the same. These traditional bodies are so cheap these days that practically everyone has one, and only a relative handful are actually making a living from them.
The question of lenses is a tricky one though. I’ve spent a couple of years on both sides of the Canon vs. Nikon rivalry, and the one thing I can say that they both have over Panasonic is the vast array of lens options they provide. Even pedestrian lenses such as the workhorse 50mm f/1.8 has no real equivalent in Panasonic’s line, which is very telling. Although you can use adapters to slap a Nikkor, Canon or Olympus lens on your Lumix body (which is what I’m currently doing), you do so at the cost of auto-focus and vibration-reduction.
When considering the mFT format, it’s impossible not to have size and weight dominate the conversation. I think that this is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because well, it’s the most obvious reason to get an mFT system. If you’re coming from a midrange DSLR like a Nikon D90 or a Canon 60D, the difference is dramatic. The size difference between the GH2 and an entry-level DSLR like the Nikon D3100 or Canon 550D is decidedly less dramatic though, which brings me to the reason why ruminations on size could be a bad thing for the Pana. It avoids the topic of features completely, and features is what should really be selling this camera. If you did a side-by-side comparison of the GH2 with a Nikon or a Canon, you would have to go all the way up to the D7000 or 60D to achieve feature parity. Imagine a D3100-sized body packed with D7000-level features, and that’s pretty much the GH2 for you. And that’s how they should be selling this camera.
The GH2 comes with an electronic viewfinder, since one of the consequences of not having a mirror box means you can no longer see “through” your lens. This feels really odd the first time you use it, as you’re essentially just looking at a smaller version of the LCD screen, positioned inside of the eyepiece. (Interestingly enough, you can correct for your own eyesight with a diopter dial just like you would on a real viewfinder.) The EVF on the GH2 is supposedly one of the best in the industry, and although I have no experience with competing units, I can say that I found the screen to have really good refresh rates and high fidelity. Some of the smaller mFTs don’t come with viewfinders of any sort, so you have to rely on the LCD completely for framing. This is not altogether a problem for most uses but it can be really difficult in extremely bright or extremely low light situations. It also does help to stabilize the camera quite a bit when you’re bracing it against your face and your two hands, as opposed to holding it out at arm’s length.
Meanwhile, the articulated liveview is a real joy to use. Shooting low on the ground has always been a bit of bitch with a regular DSLR, especially with long zooms, and I’m quite happy I finally have a camera that let’s me take low-angle images without getting my elbows dirty. The touchscreen feels a bit gimmicky though, and I’m glad the physical buttons beside it allow you to navigate all of the menus without actually touching the screen at all.
The one thing the LCD does do that’s fairly unique is to allow you to touch the area you want to focus on and then tap it again to release the shutter. Depending on your point-of-view, this feature is either absolutely brilliant, or janky as hell. I personally don’t like it because you can’t point at the LCD when you’ve got your eye jammed into the EVF, which is the case 90% of the time for me.
The GH2 only has one control wheel, which will disappoint fans who have been spoilt by the twin dials on most Nikons. That single dial is pretty hardworking though: you can press down on it to toggle between modes. In aperture-priority mode, for example, the dial controls your aperture by default, but pressing down on it before dialing will give you shutter speed instead. And when you’re in Flash Adjust mode, the dial handles that too. There are other physical controls on the body for all the usual suspects (focusing modes, shooting modes, focus priorities), which certainly adds to the serious vibe that Panasonic is going for with the GH2. Auto-focus is very fast – rivaling the fastest Nikons – which is actually quite surprising for a contrast-detection-based system.
I don’t usually recommend anything other than Nikon or Canon to SLR beginners because it’s not easy to find accessories for the alternative brands like Panasonic or Olympus in the Philippines. You can find Nikon and Canon gear (as well as the third-party vendors that support them) at every mall, every forum and every online listings site, but the Panas and Olys are few and far between. This problem is compounded even more by the micro four-thirds format, which is a subset of that already rather small niche.
Case in point: you can’t buy a spare battery for this camera anywhere. Nearly every major online photography vendor I’ve tried is backordered, and hardly any of the local shops have even seen a GH2. This is a temporary problem, to be sure, but it’s certainly not a problem that a mainstream Nikon or a Canon user would ever have to worry about. When I finally found an online store that had them in stock, I was so glad that I bought two. (It shipped from Canada. Go figure.)
It’s worth noting that Olympus and Panasonic have the same lens mount for their respective mFT cameras, so you can exchange lenses freely between them. But even here, there is a fairly significant gotcha. Olympus builds image stabilization technology directly into their camera bodies, while Panasonic (as with most other manufacturers) relegate that feature to the lenses. This means that you won’t actually find any Oly mFT lenses with IS, so using an Oly lens with a Pana body means shake city. This is largely the reason why Oly mFT lenses are cheaper (and often lighter) than their Pana equivalents; they’ve got less stuff crammed into them. The best example is the Oly 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6, which is 200g lighter and US$250 cheaper than its Pana evil twin.
As mentioned earlier, I don’t pixel-peep much, but I will say that the 14-140mm lens on the GH2 does tend toward soft images when it’s wide open. This would be noticeable if you were viewing your photos at 100% magnification (and note that the 16MP sensor on the GH2 makes for some extremely large RAW images), but otherwise you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Cranking up the ISO to 1600 does generate perfectly acceptable images, especially if you incorporate Noise Ninja into your photo processing workflow.
Whether or not you should consider the mFT format depends greatly on how receptive you are to change, and how much importance you place on size and weight. The price alone will probably deter first-timers, so really the only people who should be considering this are enthusiasts who are looking for something very specific. (That said, a newbie photographer might consider one of the more affordable siblings in the Lumix line—the GF2 or the G2.)
The question of glass is a tricky one, as 90% of DSLR owners never buy more than one lens for their cameras anyway. The coverage that either a 14-42mm or 14-140mm Lumix lens provides is more than enough for most people. Anyone looking for other lens options (the 20mm f/1.7 is the only other prime I can recommend) will be pretty disappointed though. That said, the micro four-thirds line of lenses is convalescing out of its current anemic state. Fans into photographic exotica should note that one of the only sub-f/1.0 lenses in the world is available for the mFT format, the Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95. It’s manual-focus (of course) and it’s $900, but damn. This lens by itself is probably worth more than the entire trip.
My past month with the GH2 has been an adventure. Back in January, I couldn’t manual-focus to save my life, but working with adapted Nikkors has forced me to learn what is actually a very useful skill. I can’t say I’ll never return to the DSLR format (hell, I’ve still got a D90 and a bunch of Nikkors lying around here), but I’m still quite in love with the idea of having such a capable camera whose weight isn’t the equivalent of having a laptop strapped to your neck.
If you’re interested in the micro four-thirds format or want to see more samples, check out my Flickr stream here.
As of this writing, there are no official retailers of the camera here in the Philippines. If you have a friend flying in from the US soon however, you can ask them to buy the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 from an online retailer like Amazon.
This entry was posted on Monday, February 28th, 2011 at 7:30 am and is filed under Featured, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.